There are a number of ways to read a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll on El Salvador-- none of them very reassuring to the administration.
You can read the poll results as revealing a sweeping ignorance among Americans on the question of our proper role in El Salvador; as a reflection of deep-seated mistrust of our own government; as evidence of a failure of will to do what is in our interest, or as proof that Americans are still spooked by memories of Vietnam. Apparent contradictions abound. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents, for instance, are convinced that a military victory by the rebel forces in El Salvador, if it produced a pro-communist government, would endanger the security of the United States. Over half believe that rebel success in El Salvador would endanger the stability of other Latin American countries--the domino effect. Forty-four percent say that without the involvement of Cuba and Nicaragua, there would be no war in El Salvador.
In other words, the majority of the respondents tend to buy the administration's description of what is happening in El Salvador. But they overwhelmingly reject its prescription for dealing with the situation. Indeed what comes through most clearly is their feeling that we shouldn't be doing anything at all. Asked if the United States will eventually send in troops if it turns out that the El Salvadoran government cannot defeat the rebels, 64 percent said yes. Asked if they would approve such direct military involvement, 79 percent said no, and 51 percent said they would support young men who refused to fight in El Salvador.
The poll results must be creating some consternation in an administration that sees El Salvador as the place to draw the line against communist aggression in this hemisphere. As early as 13 months ago, Secretary of State Alexander Haig was saying: "I think the situation is clearly a situation in which Cuban activity has reached a peak that is no longer acceptable in this hemisphere, whether it be in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala or any of our sovereign republics. And it is our view that this is an externally managed and orchestrated interventionism, and we are going to deal with it at the source."
But a year later, Americans still are not convinced that any effective line-drawing is either possible or desirable. Part of the reason may be the fear that the administration is dragging us into another Vietnam. But I suspect the major reason for the do-nothing attitude is that Americans don't see the threat to U.S. interests as particularly serious. They would prefer to see the communists fail in their efforts to export revolution. But even if they are successful, the poll results seem to say, the actual danger to the United States is minimal--hardly worth bothering about.
If the American public had its way, the United States government would wash its hands of both the Salvadoran government and the rebels and come home: a prescription that, all things considered, makes more sense than the course we are on.